637 - Hamlet (Generic): A Map of Nowhere through Danish Eyes

This looks like a pretty standard map of a bit of Denmark. In fact, it is no such thing.  

For there isn’t really a town called Köbstad in Denmark, nor is it close to a village called Kirkelandsby. And neither is Gaard a frequent rural toponym. Each indeed sounds convincingly enough like a proper Danish place-name. Instead, they denote generic toponymical categories. A købstad (1) is a market town, a kirkelandsby is a landsby (‘village’) endowed with a kirke (‘church’), and a gård (2) in Danish can mean either a farm or a yard. 

This is a map of anywhere, or of nowhere. It is a purely generic piece of cartography, its purpose purely intra-disciplinary: not to denote the outside world, but to teach people how to read a map (3).

But the map teaches us one extra, unintended lesson: What an abstract, idealised landscape looks like through Danish eyes. Incidentally, a  landsby - a small village without a church - is frequently called a ‘hamlet’ in English. Which of course has a Danish resonance all of its own (4).

So what does a generic Danish landscape look like? You’ll look in vain for a desert (ørken), a mountain range (bjergkæde)  or a coral reef (koralrev). What there is plenty of, is water, left, right and centre (an indsö, i.e. a lake, literally an ‘inner sea’). 

The left side of the map, in more detail.

On the little island in the western sea, there’s a fyr (lighthouse, a.k.a. fyrtårn), not far from shallows labelled sten (‘rocks’). The mainland beach south of the island is covered in shingle (rullesten), while two booms at the northern part of the beach cordon off an ålegårde (‘eel farm’).  

Prominent features on the coast are a sizeable klit (‘dune’) 18 metres high, an extensive mose (‘bog’) just north of a tørveskær (literally ‘peat-cutting’, a.k.a. turbary), a big lyng (‘heather’) containing a skanse (‘redoubt’)  and a huge marsk (‘marsh’), delimited by a damning (‘dam’). The lake and sea are connected by a vandløb (‘stream’), which is bridged by a spang (‘log bridge’). The incidental kilde (‘source’) keeps the land moist, while the occasional grøft (‘ditch’) helps to keep the land drained. There are no headlands or peninsulas, no rocks or mountains; like the real Denmark, this fictional one is sandy, flat and watery. 

Fictional Denmark may be relatively poor in topographical features, that doesn’t stop the fictional Danes from making the most out of it, who crisscross their imaginary homeland by fodsti (‘footpath’), sognevej (‘parish road’), markvej (‘country lane’), and landsvej (‘country road’) if they’re not taking the jernbane (railway, literally ‘iron road’ - compare French: chemin de fer).

The countryside is dotted with the occasional, isolated hus (‘house’), planted with nåleskov (‘coniferous forest’) and løvskov (‘deciduous forest’), levende hegn (‘hedgerows’), and a række af træer (‘row of trees’). No lush vegetation, no great plantations of cash crops: even in fictional Denmark, the weather is too inclement for extensive horticulture, the occasional jordvold med beplantning (‘planted embankment’) notwithstanding.

But there are other ways to scratch a living from the soil: via a sandgrav (‘sand pit’), a vejrmølle (‘windmill’, literally: ‘weather mill’) or by having your cows graze the eng (‘meadow’), rather than the flyvesand (‘quicksand’). The resources may be scarce, but there is little evidence of ruin and neglect, just a kirketomt (‘empty church’) here and there. Villages and cities are prosperous, no sign of defensive walls. The slot (‘castle’) seems a relic from more violent times, and now purely ornamental.

The right hand side.

How strange it must be to live in this purely instructive landscape. If this were a Google Map and we could zoom in to street view, we’d probably see a bank called Bank, in between a post office called Posthus and a clothes store called Tøjbutik (5). 

What this world suffers from, is a shocking lack of specificity. And, simultaneously, of vagueness: there are no blurry lines, no grey zones, no works in progress in this neat bit of Danish abstractionism. 

But maybe, just maybe, the generations of Danes who trained their map-reading skills on this fictional world, were inspired to dream up their own stories of the goings-on in the Købstad, and the strange miller who lived in the vejrmølle. Perhaps they saw themselves as characters on the map as well - operating the Trigonometrisk Station: what better way to be the demiurge of your own little world than to imagine yourself a land surveyor in a fictional landscape?


This map has been in my files for so long that I forget where it came from. Anybody who can provide a source is very welcome to do so.


(1) Literally ‘buying city’. Note that modern Danish has replaced the ö with ø. 

(2) The Danish orthography on this map is antiquated. In 1948, the letter å replaced the double vowel aa, and the capitalisation of nouns (still current in German) was abolished. The switch hasn’t been entirely consistent: some place names are still spelled the old way, e.g. Aalborg instead of Ålborg. Similarly, the letter ö gave way to the ø, but most reluctantly so on maps. Only in 1957 were cartographic entities like Læsö and Helsingör re-spelled as Læsø and Helsingør.

(3) For another example, in English, see #78.

(4) Although the etymologies are different. The name of the fictional Danish prince, and tragic protagonist of the eponymous Shakespeare play, derives from Amlaidhe, an Irish name for a hero in folk stories, meaning something like ‘furious, raging’. The churchless settlement gets its name from the Old French hamelet, a diminutive form of ham, which is cognate with Germanic words like Heim (German), heem (Dutch) and home (English).

(5) And maybe we’ll be just in time for the seasonal slutspurt (sales period).

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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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